Belfast Telegraph

Omagh: Summer school Spaniards making a tentative return

BY IVAN LITTLE

A ban on Donegal-based Spanish students crossing the border in the wake of the deaths of two of their group in the Omagh bomb has been lifted for the first time since the massacre.

The restrictions were imposed after Spanish and Donegal children and their teachers were caught up in the Real IRA bombing which killed 29 people exactly 15 years ago.

On August 15, 1998 student Fernando Blasco Baselga (12) and group leader Rocio Abad Ramos (23) were among the victims, along with Buncrana youngsters Shaun McLaughlin (12), James Barker (12) and eight-year-old Oran Doherty.

Another Spanish visitor to Omagh on the day of the blast features in one of the most poignant images from the day.

Gonzalo Cavedo was captured posing with a young child on his shoulders, completely unaware that in the red car just yards away was a 500lb bomb which seconds later would claim the lives of many in the picture and injure hundreds more. Mr Cavedo and the child survived, but the photographer was killed.

Visits by Spanish students to Buncrana as part of a 25-year-old language exchange scheme have gone ahead every summer with up to 200 students enrolling, but the participants haven't been allowed to enter Northern Ireland in organised groups because of fears for their safety.

But this year, with the backing of their relatives, small parties of students have gone to Londonderry to pay emotional trips to the symbolic Peace Bridge.

Organiser Paula Helguero of the Donegal Centre scheme said: "Families were worried that something could happen again. But time has been something of a healer and we thought we should return to the north, especially with the Year of Culture and with Derry looking so great.

"We haven't brought all the students together, but rather in groups of around 15 or 20."

In the years after the bombing, the Spanish students who stay with host families in Donegal were brought to Buncrana via Sligo rather than having to travel through Northern Ireland.

Paula remembers that fateful day in Omagh only too well. "Our students arrived in Omagh from the Ulster American Folk Park 20 minutes before the explosion. I got a phone call five minutes after the blast and went straight to the hospital."

Paula searched frantically for the students. Eventually she had to identify two bodies and contact the victims' families in Spain. She later discovered that three Buncrana children had also been killed and that her 12-year-old niece had been critically injured.

"Thankfully, she has recovered and is now working for Ryanair in Oslo," she said, adding another positive footnote that two of the leaders who were injured in Omagh have now married and have three children.

Today Paula and her students will mark the 15th anniversary of the bombing with a special Mass in Buncrana.

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